Friday 21 December 2018

2018: things that didn’t quite make the cut

We’ve covered a range of stuff this year, as far back as 1888 and through to 1928, 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 (phew!). But quite a few things also had anniversaries this year. Here are some that we didn’t get to cover.

If you like spicy food, then there’s a good chance that you own some Tabasco sauce. The tabasco peppers the sauce contains originally came from the Mexican state of the same name, but the Tabasco branded sauce you typically see comes from Louisiana where both it and the McIlhenny Company were created in 1868.

One thing that you could put a dash of Tabasco in would be a Cup Noodle. Introduced by Nissin into Japan in 1958, the Cup Noodle eventually spread throughout the world, inspiring other very similar brands such as Pot Noodle in the UK.

Tabasco Sauce (1868), Cup Noodle (1958), Pepsi Cola (1898)
If you were looking for a beverage to wash your spicy Cup Noodle down with, Pepsi-Cola was invented in 1898 or you could try some Vimto, invented in Manchester in 1908 and popular with members of temperance societies who didn’t drink alcohol. Vimto also because a hit in many Muslim countries for the same reason.

1958 saw a peculiarly American take on a Scandinavian favourite with the launch of Swedish Fish. A brightly-coloured remake of the salty liquorice original, Swedish Fish remain popular in the United States today, although they contain no actual fish. Similarly, Jelly Babies contain no actual babies, but are also squishy and brightly coloured. Bassetts launched their well-known take on Jelly Babies in 1918.

Vimto (1908), Swedish Fish (1958), Jelly Babies (1918)

Back in Sweden, 1978 saw the launch of perhaps the most recognisable SAAB automobile, the SAAB 900. Spending 15 years in product, the 900 was an understated yet rather desirable car that showed Swedish engineering at its finest… and most quirky. One thing that drivers of the SAAB 900 would find interrupting their otherwise enjoyable journey were traffic lights, first introduced in London in December 1868. This gas-powered traffic light was short-lived however, as it exploded the following month. It took another half century or so for the idea to gain popularity… but my goodness, it did.

More entertaining than traffic lights, the LP record was launched by Columbia Records in 1948. Starting a familiar pattern of trying to squeeze more entertainment into a physical format, technologies such as the LaserDisc, CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays really just followed the LP’s lead.

SAAB 900 (1978), Traffic Light (1868), LP Record (1948)
1918 saw the creation of the electronic flip-flop, a bistable circuit that can be used to save a 0 or a 1, and is therefore an important step into creating modern computing.  Three-quarters of a century later this led to the not exactly awe-inspiring Atari Jaguar and Amstrad Mega PC consoles, plus the Apple MessagePad PDA. But apparently there was a lot of other stuff along the way too.

Flip-Flop (1918) plus Atari Jaguar, Amstrad Mega PC, Apple MessagePad (1993)

In the online world, the process of connecting computers together to share information was given a boost by the invention of the modem in 1958, allowing computers to communicate over plain old telephone lines. 30 years later this allowed many Internet-connected computer users to talk to each other using Internet Relay Chat, and 5 years after THAT - in 1993 -  these technologies had grown into the nascent World-Wide Web and the world’s first recognisable search engine was born… no, not Google but something called JumpStation.

Modem (not actually a 1958 model), Jumpstation (1993), Internet Relay Chat (1988)

What can we look forward to next year? We see the anniversaries of such diverse products as TiVO, the Intel 486, Sinclair ZX80, Lunar Lander and... err, the Toyota Crown S130. Not all breakthroughs are as obvious as you would think. In the meantime, enjoy a mince pie - first introduced into Europe in the 13th Century.

Image credits:
g4ll4is via Flickr
Rainer Zenz via Wikimedia Commons
Qirille via Wikimedia Commons
Wapster via Flickr
Swedennewyork via Flickr
Sam Greenhalgh via Flickr 
Huynh Phuc via Wikimedia Commons 
Raysonho via Wikimedia Commons
Sheila Scarborough via Flickr
Turbojet via Wikimedia Commons
Evan-Amos via Wikimdia Commons
Association WDA via Flickr
MKFI via Wikimedia Commons
Frederik Ramm: Recherchieren und Publizieren im World Wide Web
Darkbear via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 14 December 2018

Simon (1978)

Launched 1978

Forty years ago the microprocessor revolution was bringing affordable and usable computers into homes, businesses and schools. But at the same time we were seeing the first practical and engaging electronic toys.

Launched in late 1978, Milton Bradley’s Simon game was an electronic version of the playground game “Simon Says” - only here the Simon itself had four brightly-colour plastic buttons that lit up with an accompanying musical note, and players had to copy the ever-more-complex sequences.

The concept of the Simon was based in part on Atari’s 1974 arcade game “Touch-Me”. Where that was a coin-operated monster, the Simon itself was a handheld device and was an elegant piece of industrial design.

Inside was a customised version of the Texas Instruments TMS 1000 chip that was also the heart of the TI Speak & Spell. It was simple to use and fun to play, and massively popular. Unfortunately the bulbs used to light it up had a habit of failing and would sometimes need replacing, and then of course there was the issue of batteries...

The Simon was a significant sales success and variants of it are still on sale today, although these days under the “Hasbro” brand, or alternatively original versions are pretty commonly available and cost around the same as a new one.

Image credit: Conrad Longmore via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 12 December 2018

LaserDisc (1978)

Either a LaserDisc or a CD being held by a very tiny person
Introduced December 1978

You might think that movies on disc started with DVDs in the late 1990s, but in fact the idea was first explored commercially in 1978 with the LaserDisc, sold at the time as the MCA DiscoVision. Although it was only ever a niche product appealing to people who like their movies very much, the LaserDisc paved the way for CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays.

Unlike modern digital discs, the LaserDisc stored video tracks in an analogue format, in the same way that VHS tapes did. Compared to modern methods, this is relatively inefficient and in order to fit a meaningful amount of video on video onto them, they were made in a 12” format (much like an LP record). Depending on which format the disc was, it could store up to 60 minutes of video on each side, although with many players you would physically need to flip the disc over after the hour was up.

The main competition at the time was VHS. Although VHS tapes were smaller and easier to handle, LaserDisc had nearly twice the horizontal resolution and (if handled carefully) a much greater lifespan. As with a modern DVD, it was possible to skip through parts of the film without having to wait for (seemingly) ever as the tape rewound or fast forwarded. Theoretically, LaserDiscs should have been cheaper than VHS tapes too, but in the end VHS could leverage the economy of scale to bring the price down.

Market penetration was not huge – by the late 1990s 2% of US households had one, but the format stayed around until 2001 when DVDs finally got good enough to replace LaserDiscs in quality terms, but even then the differences were marginal and it wasn’t until the introduction of Blu-ray that the quality of LaserDisc was definitely beaten.

Because of its analogue nature, the quality of playback varied depending on the quality of the device. Today, a good quality player can cost hundreds of pounds, or even £1000 plus if it comes with movies. And although these technological relics are somewhat impractical,  for collectors of esoteric entertainment equipment they may well make a worthwhile addition.

Image credit: Windell Oskay via Flickr

Saturday 8 December 2018

Doug Engelbart's Mother of All Demos (1968)

9th December 1968

Video conferencing, the computer mouse, hypertext and windowing systems, collaborative working, computer graphics, networks of computers… it all sounds very contemporary. But we are not talking about now – it is San Francisco in December 1968, and THIS is The Mother of All Demos.

Presented by Doug Engelbart, a pioneer of early computing and frankly a genius, this technology demonstration combined almost all the elements of modern computing decades before they hit the mainstream. Back in the 1960s, computers were seen primarily as number crunchers, but Engelbart and his team at the Stanford Research Institute were more interested in how humans could interact with computers and use them to extend their own capabilities.

Using a combination of modems, microwave links, video cameras, projectors and start-of-the-art computer equipment, Engelbart and his team wowed the thousand people or so watching his 90 minute presentation. And although the technology was being pushed to its limits, many of the audience were inspired to take the concepts and improve on them, including many other people who became pioneers in the early computing industry. Several of the ideas were picked up in the Xerox Alto five years later, and that in turn inspired the Mac and Windows operating systems.

The name “The Mother of All Demos” came much later of course, applied to the talk in the 1990s when the true extent of its influence had become apparent (and named after Saddam Hussein’s “Mother of All Battles” earlier that same decade). In retrospect, this was an under-rated but highly significant 90 minutes that helped to shape the future of technology, and that even 50 years later is still relevant. Although it took a while, from the late 1980s onwards Engelbart received many honours, including one from Bill Clinton. He died in 2013 aged 88.

The talk was recorded for posterity, and there are several versions available including an interactive and annotated one or a YouTube playlist showing the highlights, or a 17 minute version below.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Kogan Agora and Agora Pro (2008)

Announced December 2008

When Android was launched in 2007 there was great anticipation about what the first handset would look like, and in September 2008 we saw the launch of the world’s first Android smartphone – the T-Mobile G1.

Although the G1 was OK, you needed to be a T-Mobile customer to get it in most regions and it lacked the polish and elegance of the iPhone 3G. There was a lot of excitement over what Android phone would come next, but it nobody expected it to come from Kogan.

If you don’t live in Australia there is a good chance you haven’t heard of Kogan. Founded in 2006 but twenty-something entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan, the company at first was involved in selling electronics such as TV sets. Over the years Kogan’s retail offerings have expanded and started to include financial products, travel services and it became an internet service provider. All of this expansion was no doubt made a little easier by the absence of Amazon until November 2017, allowing Kogan to grow massively. But back in 2008 while a relatively small company, it decided to branch out into the smartphone market.

Unlike most electronics retailers, Kogan worked closely with the east Asian manufacturers of their products to come up with new products. To this end they announced the closely related Kogan Agora and Agora Pro Android smartphones in December 2008.

Kogan Agora Pro. A camera! WiFi! GPS!
The standard Agora had a 2.5” 320 x 240 pixel touchscreen display, 3.5G support and… errr… well, not much more it turns out because the Agora was strictly a misery-spec smartphone, but then it did only cost AU$299 or about £175. If you wanted essentials such as WiFi, GPS and a camera you’d need to fork out AU$399.

The BlackBerryesque design of the Agora didn’t seem that odd back in 2008, both because of the prevalence of BlackBerry handsets themselves, and the fact that there had only been one Android handset to date – the G1 – and that too had a physical keyboard. In truth though the need for a physical keyboard was a limitation of early versions of Android, as Google’s prototype (and touchscreen-less) Sooner handset demonstrated.

It might seem obvious to us today that the Agora wasn’t going to have the appeal that the big-screen G1 did, and indeed Kogan got cold feet shortly before the launch and effectively cancelled the product. There was an outcry at the time and accusations that it had all been a publicity stunt, but the Agora does seem to be under-powered in retrospect.

Other manufacturers tried a similar format, the Samsung Galaxy Pro and HTC ChaCha being examples. None of these have been particular popular, although BlackBerry persists with physical keyboards today.

The Agora never made it to be the second Android phone to market, instead it was a keyboardless version of the G1 known as the HTC Magic. A few months later though, Samsung debuted the I7500 Galaxy which brought forth an enormous family of hundreds of other Galaxy handsets. The flop with the Agora didn’t do Kogan much harm in the end either, and they use the Agora name today for their current crop of smartphones.